Public Transit as a Mental Health Intervention

An international team of public health researchers has found a promising new method of improving mental health among older adults: handing out free bus passes.

In a study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, the researchers investigated differences in mental health and daily life between older adults who were eligible to receive free bus passes and those who weren’t.

The first, and least surprising, finding in the study was that people who had access to free bus passes … took the bus more. Specifically, being eligible for a free bus pass was associated with an eight percent increase in public transit use.

So what did people do when they took to the busses? For one thing, they volunteered more. They also saw their children more frequently and spent more time with their friends. In other words, giving older people free bus passes makes it easier for them to participate in three activities that are associated with increased happiness.

And increased happiness is exactly what the people in the study got. In particular, those with access to free bus passes had fewer depressive symptoms and reported less intense feelings of loneliness.

While the study still leaves some room for questions about what the cause-and-effect is, the results certainly suggest a plausible explanation for the link between free bus passes and mental health: easier access to bus passes leads to more getting out and doing things like volunteering and socializing, which leads to less loneliness and depression.

In other words, it may be time to consider adding another tool to the repertoire of available mental health interventions, especially when it comes to mental health in older age. Meditation, regular exercise and psychotherapy are all great tools for increasing happiness, but now it looks like there may be a new game in town: bus passes.

Image: Flickr/Austin Cross